Wabamun Lake Fishery Update

[Note: The following was first published in the June 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

It has been a while since I wrote a column about what is happening with the Wabamun Lake fishery. Wabamun is a very popular recreation lake located 70 km west of Edmonton. At one time it was one of the most productive fisheries in the province. My last column on the lake appeared in October of 2012 and was a general overview of the situation at that time. As many remember, the lake suffered a train derailment and catastrophic oil spill in 2005, and people were wondering how the fishery was doing as a result.

Wabamun commercial fishery

Not that long ago, Wabamun was one of the most productive commercial fisheries in the province.

In that column I reported that most mature fish had survived the spill but the lake whitefish population had taken a hit because the pollutants from the oil had affected the survivability of whitefish eggs. Although Alberta Health had found low levels of petroleum pollutants in the flesh of fish shortly after the spill, tests several months later confirmed those chemicals had not persisted and most fish were O.K. to consume. The one exception to consuming fish was the ongoing issue of mercury in older fish, especially pike. However, the mercury pollution is not related to the oil spill but comes from the air as a result of the burning of fossil fuels and forests.

Officers checking net

Officers checking commercial fishing nets on Wabamun Lake in 1982.

Although most fish could be eaten, Alberta Fish and Wildlife imposed a catch-and-release (C&R) regulation for all species in the lake in 2008 to allow fish stocks to recover. As a result, within a few years, anglers were catching trophy-size northern pike that normally are only found in northern fly-in lakes. This fostered the idea that perhaps Wabamun should be developed as a trophy pike fishery, unique to a lake so close to a major metropolitan area.

Walleye Restoration

As I related in 2012, the Alberta Government has long tried to reintroduce walleye to the lake. However, the introductions were not successful. This was most likely because the Wabamun power plant used the lake as its cooling pond since 1956, raising lake water temperature and causing walleye eggs to hatch too early in the spring for the fry to survive. The power plant ceased operations in 2010, so the government decided once again to introduce walleye in 2011. This introduction appears to have been successful, as there is evidence the walleye are spawning and the young are surviving. No further introductions have been made since 2014.

Were Walleye Native to Wabamun?
There is some debate whether walleye ever naturally occurred in Wabamun Lake. Several former government biologists, who at various times were fisheries managers of the lake, say walleye were never in the lake, referencing commercial fishing reports dating back to the 19th century that show no evidence of walleye ever being caught. On the other hand, current Wabamun fisheries biologist, Stephen Spencer, found a commercial fishing record dated 1912-13 that lists 18,000 lbs. (8200 kg) of pickerel (misnomer for walleye) being caught in that year. Nevertheless, the former managers point out that records for other years around that time do not corroborate this finding, and the 1912-13 record might be in error as so-called pickerel were often confused with pike…? The debate continues.

Management Update

In March of 2017 Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) issued a long-awaited “Wabamun Lake Fisheries Management Update”. The document lists the fisheries management objectives for the lake and the status of the fish populations based on a 2015 Fall Index Netting (FIN) study (PDF), where standardized multi-mesh nets are placed at random locations around the lake for about 24 hours. The number of fish of each species caught over that time is used to determine that species’ Fish Sustainability Index, where the risk to the sustainability of the population is rated as either Very Low, Low, Moderate, High or Very High Risk. The following are highlights from the update.

Walleye: The restoration continues. Although it was predicted back in 2012 that a harvestable population of walleye might be possible within three to five years (about now), the government now predicts a sustainable harvest will not be available until five to seven years from now. Then it is hoped the walleye now being produced in the lake will reach maturity in sufficient numbers to produce a harvestable surplus. For these reasons and a low FIN catch rate, walleye are classified as Very High Risk, and the no-harvest regulation continues.

Northern Pike: Trophy status for this species is confirmed for the lake. The status is based on the large pike being caught and a 2013 survey of anglers coming off the lake, in which more than 80% supported having opportunities to catch trophy pike. However, a low FIN catch rate places the pike at High Risk, and all pike caught must be released.

Lake Whitefish: Perhaps the biggest disappointment with this update is the status of the lake whitefish population. For much of the 20th century, Wabamun was one of the biggest commercial producers of whitefish in the province. In some years, commercial fishers caught from 200,000 to near 500,000 kg (440,000 to 1.1 million lbs.) of whitefish. It was also a popular sport fish, especially in the winter. However, since the oil spill of 2005, the FIN catch rate for whitefish has been on steady decline. Thus, the population remains in recovery and the no harvest regulation continues.

There was no mention of yellow perch in the update, but the FIN summary reports only one perch caught. So, the lake remains C&R for all species for the next few years. The status of the fishery will not be revisited until 2020 when another FIN study will be undertaken. In the meantime, the government intends to consult with a wider range of anglers about what they would like to see on the lake: continue all C&R, trophy pike, harvestable walleye, whitefish and perch…?


Meanwhile, anglers are catching many healthy walleye they must release. They are also catching some thin and seemingly unhealthy pike, and very few whitefish and yellow perch. As a result, many believe the walleye are negatively affecting the pike, whitefish and perch.

During a meeting with members of the Wabamun Watershed Management Council in April, government fisheries biologists Stephen Spencer and John Tchir stated that the low numbers and poor quality pike, whitefish and perch being reported are natural fluctuations of populations as a result of a new top predator (walleye) being introduced to the lake. Once the populations adjust to the new situation, numbers should improve.

Catch-and-Release Mortality: Tchir also mentioned that foul hooking or rough handling by anglers—damaging gills and internal organs—could cause the thin pike being observed. He mentioned there is a large “recycling” of fish in a C&R fishery close to a city. The chances of a fish surviving several handlings by anglers are reduced each time the fish is caught.

If that is the case and C&R is necessary to produce trophy pike, perhaps a trophy pike lake so close to a city is not possible or desirable…? Or perhaps there needs to be more strenuous rules regarding C&R fishing, such as banning the use of bait and treble hooks…? Fish tend to swallow baited hooks more readily than non-baited ones, and treble hooks are harder to dislodge from a fish’s mouth, increasing the chance of injury while handling.

And I would be remiss not to mention that a group of former government fisheries biologists believe that the growing population of walleye in Wabamun needs to have a limited harvest to control the population growth and allow the other species to better adapt to the new predator. Many also question why walleye were introduced in the first place, when the lake 1) was recovering from a catastrophic oil spill, 2) was being groomed as a trophy pike lake, and 3) was seeing its whitefish population plummeting? Perhaps walleye were not meant to be in Wabamun at this time…?

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Springing for Draws and Budgets

[Note: The following was first published in the May 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Spring is here and—along with the green grass, colourful flowers and warm rain—come our hopes for the coming fishing and hunting seasons. Planning is an important and often enjoyable part of any fishing or hunting trip and the annual draws for licences require people to start planning well ahead of their trips. As well, spring is the time for governments to table their budgets for the coming year. These documents can tell you much about what might be in store for future hunting and fishing opportunities.

If you are a veteran of the hunting draw process, you most likely know what you want and how to apply. But if you are new to the process or otherwise confused by it all, then you need to do some careful study of the draw booklet that will be out this month.

Two additional documents from Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) you will find helpful are the Draw Summary Report for 2016 and previous years and the Hunter Harvest Report for 2015 and earlier. The draw report will tell you the popularity of a specific licence in a specific Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) and your chance to be drawn for it, based on your current draw priority. The hunter harvest report will tell you your probability of bagging an animal in a specific WMU once you have a licence for it.

2017-04 Meredith-DrawHarvestReports

The Hunter Harvest and Draw Reports from previous years provide some valuable information.

Although both reports provide important information that helps you make your choices, such information should be taken with the proverbial “grain of salt.” The Draw Summary Reports provide accurate information about the previous years’ draws. All the data comes from the draw process itself, so accuracy for the specific year is not an issue. However, there are two “wild card” variables that should be considered when using that information to make a decision about what will happen this year. The first one is the number of licences allotted for a particular species in a WMU. AEP can change that number from one year to the next, depending upon the management goals for that species in that WMU and what they’ve learned from population surveys and other issues.

The second variable is the number of hunters applying for that licence in the WMU. One can assume the number will be relatively the same from year to year but there is no guarantee it will. Hunters change WMUs for a variety of reasons and it’s difficult to predict how many will apply for a specific WMU. So, the fact that a licence got drawn with a certain priority one year does not guarantee it will be drawn for that priority the following year.

The Hunter Harvest Report is a bit less reliable than the draw report because it’s dependent upon hunters voluntarily reporting their success or lack there of. The report assumes hunters will be honest, and that’s probably a fair assumption for the most part. However, I’m sure there are many who either don’t bother to make a report or who have a problem recording they were not successful. Ego is a funny thing, especially with regard to hunter success. We don’t like to admit we didn’t fill a tag, even if we’re just ‘talking’ to a computer program.

Another issue is a hunter will sometimes report success when it wasn’t he or she who shot the animal but someone else in the hunting party who also reports the success, double counting that piece of information. All of the above skews the data, and so the “grain of salt” rule should apply.

The draws are an important part of getting a licence in the coming hunting seasons, but one should remember there are many general (“over-the-counter”) licences available. So if you do not get drawn, there are still opportunities. The question is how long will those opportunities last?

Provincial Budget
Spring is also a time for governments to table their budgets for the coming fiscal year and Alberta is no exception. This is the NDP government’s second budget and there is much controversy about the planned deficit and continued spending. I’m not a fan of spending more than you earn but I also know the government provides crucial services that require sustained funding. So, I can understand both sides of the argument, and am glad I’m not the one having to make the decisions.

However, it always amazes me how some people complain about government over spending while at the same time complaining about their pet projects not getting enough tax payer money. Such could be argued for the March 21st Alberta Fish and Game Association news release with regard to the Alberta budget and the money to be spent on fish and wildlife. The release correctly states the Alberta Government will spend $44 million on fish and wildlife in the next fiscal year, or 0.08% of the government’s total expenses (or 4% of AEP’s total expenses). Yes, a small sum in the grand scheme of things, but what the news release did not mention was the budget for fish and wildlife in 2016-17 had been $24.5 million. So, in reality the government has almost doubled the budget for 2017-18.

Perhaps a better comparison would be to look at a budget from pervious years, perhaps when there was still a Fish and Wildlife Division. My last year working for the division was 2002. The Fish and Wildlife budget for that year was $40 million dollars or about $53 million in 2015 dollars (www.measuringworth.com). But one must remember that the latter budget included expenses for the Enforcement Branch of the division that was moved to Alberta Justice and Solicitor General in 2011. So, the $44 million budgeted for 2017-18 could be a significant increase indeed. However, “the devil is in the details.”

2017-04 Meredith-AEP-BudgetExpense_edited-1

The annual budget documents provide some general insight into what is to come.

According to the budget Fiscal Plan 2017-20, the $44 million for 2017-18 will be used “for fish and wildlife including support for provincial woodland caribou management and recovery and the containment and management of whirling disease detected in Alberta in August 2016.” Not a lot of detail. As in the 2016-17 budget, there is little mention of management for game species, except perhaps on the revenue side where fishing and hunting licence sales are expected to marginally increase. Perhaps the AFGA news release should have focused more on these issues.

And where was the AFGA when last year’s (2016-17) budget was released? That’s when hunters, anglers, conservationists, etc. should have complained about fish and wildlife’s low budget. But there was hardly a peep from any conservation organization, let alone the AFGA. Maybe the other (non-AFGA) groups were quietly lobbying behind the scenes to get more things done for biodiversity and threatened species that resulted in the increase in funding for those areas this year…?

And back in 2012, when the Fish and Wildlife Division was quietly dissolved, the AFGA likewise failed to publicly complain, despite the fact that it had been the main driver for the creation of the agency back in the early 20th century. Is the paradigm shift away from consumptive use of fish and wildlife the consequence of such failures? Perhaps, but it does appear the AFGA is a bit late to the table for discussing budgets and conservation. Maybe they will catch up this year…?

Comments are always welcome (below).

Visit me on my website where you’ll find more stories and pics:

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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The Inequity of “Balance”

Guest Blog: In Alberta we are slowly facing the reality that there are only so many resources to go around, most especially fish and wildlife resources. However, when it is pointed out that resource extraction must be controlled so that our natural heritage can be maintained, we are often told by the powers that be that all must be managed in a “balanced” way. Fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch (and frequent guest blogger here) finds difficulty with that word and has written an essay (below) about how the word is used to justify the greed that strips our heritage away. Loren’s previous essays posted here include: Tracks and SpoorMyths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use and Two Fish, One Fish, No Fish.

The Inequity of Balance
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Copyright © 2017

My mother would give my older brother a chocolate bar, to be shared “equally” with me. He would break the bar in roughly half, then nibble off the extraneous edges so the halves were even. If too much was removed from one piece, the other one required attention, to achieve “balance”. Eventually we would each get the same amount, although he had a head start on the share. This is where I first perceived the inequity of balance.

In discussions about development and the environment, those on the side of development always make the case we need a “balanced” approach, meaning the environment has to give so they can get their share. I have flashbacks to my brother dividing up scarce chocolate bars when I hear this dubious reasoning.

If the expression, balance, meant an equitable, or proportional sharing of resources, landscapes or chocolate, it would be easier to swallow. The reality is most of our landscapes and a majority of our natural resources have already been developed, changed, or in some way lost. If we have already converted 80% of the natural world into some economic endeavor it seems a bit of a stretch to achieve balance as we carve up the remaining 20%. We are not weighing two equal things.

The word balance is a changeling, depending on who is using it. When the off highway vehicle community use the word what they say is, “Yes, the environment is important, but we must find a balance.” What they mean is, “we want to continue to drive off road with a minimum of restriction”. Loggers say it’s important to balance protection of old growth forest against forest renewal through clear-cutting. What they really mean is, “keep the annual allowable cut high for better economic return.” The oil patch says we need a balanced approach on controls of greenhouse gas emissions because the proposed actions would cost too much. In other words, “action on climate change is aspirational and breathing is optional.”

Without a starting point, a benchmark in time to measure from, trend analysis and a sense of thresholds and limits, balance is a meaningless term. Instead of giving us direction for resource management it sets the stage for continuing to divide up the spoils until the bits left are not worth fighting over. It avoids all that uncomfortable argument about resource depletion, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem failure and allows one to think the status quo can continue.

In planning we tend to ignore everything that happened prior to the plan and allocate resources based on what’s left. Institutional amnesia magically erases the existing development footprint allowing further division to be made, as we continually add to the imbalance of future development against protection. And, as the imbalance grows, we are further separated from the environment that sustains and provides for us.

Balance sounds appropriate, as any smooth-sounding word does, but it is a disingenuous term with much room for manipulation and misunderstanding. Balance is a word much used in public relations spin. The hidden meaning of balance seems to be excessive, unequal division and use of resources, not an equitable sharing, proportional use or restraint. Balance has to convey something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

When the word balance is used, look for imbalance instead. Instead of acts of self-restraint, “balancing” competing demands liberates us from the tough decisions of limits. Writer and conservationist Kevin van Tighem, obviously fed up with this word and how it is used has suggested a moratorium on its use.

Life balances itself on a precarious ledge; through our actions we can maintain it or propel it off the edge. In many cases, to restore ecosystem function and lost or declining biodiversity a drastic re-balance is necessary. That means rolling back the tide of development in a fine adjustment between giving and taking. Imagine the thorns and thistles of local resistance and business opposition to that idea of balance.

So, how much is enough? Ecologists, like the world–renowned E. O. Wilson, have long called for “Nature needs half”. The rationale is we need to protect and maintain half of the landscape to maintain ecosystem functions, just to allow us to survive. Of course, much of the world’s biodiversity would ride our coattails on this one.

To this I suggest we use the term balance as you might for your bank account. Too many withdrawals, too many expenses and not enough income means we are going broke. Calculations from the WorldWatch Institute indicate the planet has available 1.9 hectares of biologically productive land per person to supply resources and absorb wastes. Yet, the average person on earth already uses 2.3 hectares worth. A report prepared by 1360 scientists for the World Bank warns that about two-thirds of the natural machinery that supports life on Earth is being degraded by human pressure. Dr. Bill Rees calculates we in the western world are using the equivalent of something like two and half earths to meet our demands.

One might think we have failed to balance our ecological cheque books. It is ironic that those most obsessed with the idea government needs to eliminate deficit spending in the economy continue to promote it in the environment.

Victor Hugo, the famous 19th century writer, remarked that, “To put everything in balance is good, to put everything in harmony is better.”  Harmony implies restraint, stewardship and sustainability. To that end we have to decide between what we want and what we need; a gulf exists between these two points, in part due to the blind use of the word balance. We can fall into a deadly trap of thinking balance implies we need not concern ourselves with limits. The implication is we can carry on this ecological Ponzi scheme forever.

In the end it is the recognition we can’t have it all, only a little. If we’ve taken too much, some needs to be given back. Balance that against the prevailing use of the term “balance”.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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A Strategy for Conservation

[Note: The following was first published in the April 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

One of the issues that stood out for me during the recent controversy over the new Castle parks in southwest Alberta is the lack of an overall strategic plan for the conservation of our Eastern Slopes, not just the Castle River watershed. Such a plan would protect all headwaters and critical habitats, as well as provide designated trails for Off-Highway Vehicles that do not conflict with conservation goals. As pointed out by many, the banning of OHVs in the Castle parks will just push OHV users into other areas, some of which are headwaters regions, such as those found in the Oldman, Red Deer and North Saskatchewan River watersheds. Are not these headwaters just as important as those of the Castle?

2009-10 Meredith-Keith-RiverCrossing

We need a conservation strategy to protect our wild waters.

As I was writing this column, the Alberta Government on March 1 announced that it would extend the deadline from March 20 to April 19 to comment and take a survey about the draft Castle parks management plan. As well, the consultation is being expanded to include “wider conservation and land use issues in the southern Eastern Slopes, Castle parks and surrounding areas, including linear disturbances, off-highway vehicle use and trail planning.” The government is scheduling public information sessions “in the coming months.” Although OHVs will not be allowed in the parks, there will be designated OHV trails and facilities created outside the parks. So it looks like the government is responding to concerns expressed through their survey and other feedback and is indeed looking beyond the new parks. But are they looking far enough?

The creation of the Castle parks came about as a result of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan that was developed under the Land Use Framework (LUF). The LUF has a checkered history. Announced in 2008 by then Minister Ted Morton, the LUF was to provide the overall land use plans that would guide Alberta into a sustainable future, balancing the needs of an ever-growing human population with the resources available.

Initially the plans were supposed to be in place by 2012, an ambitious goal. Sure enough, the goal did not even come close to being met. Out of the seven proposed regional plans, only two (Lower Athabasca and South Saskatchewan) have been completed. Of the other five, only the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (started in 2014) is in process, although the pace has been frustratingly slow if not stagnated. Change of government, budget cuts and the complexity of the process have taken their toll. But the need is still there, especially in our headwater regions where the quality of our drinking water is at stake, as well as critical habitats for game species and endangered wildlife, and quality recreational experiences in truly wild places. Perhaps it’s time for the government to show the leadership it displayed with the Castle parks, and develop and implement a strategic plan for the Eastern Slopes north of the Castle parks and incorporate that plan into the coming regional plans.

2010-09 Meredith-Keith-Cutline

Walking and listening is the essence of good hunting.

Non-mechanized Anglers and Hunters
Another issue that raised its head as a result of the Castle parks announcement was the lack of representation non-mechanized hunters and anglers have on certain conservation matters. Like many, I thought the Alberta Fish and Game Association would be in favor of the new parks because they would provide the protection these areas need to ensure viable fish and game populations. However, in a February 16 news release the AFGA came out squarely in favor of OHV use in the parks. The release failed to mention any of the positive things the parks would clearly do for fish and wildlife conservation, including maintaining quality hunting and fishing opportunities. This came from a conservation organization that bans the use of OHVs or any other motorized vehicle on its own Wildlife Trust Fund properties, set aside to preserve wildlife habitat.

Now, I’ve supported the AFGA for a long time and have done work for them and my local club for many years. My friend and colleague Duane Radford and I wrote and edited the book, Conservation Pride and Passion (2008), the 100-year history of the organization, in which we worked with AFGA members from across the province. As well, I realize anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers are a diverse group, and representing all views on all issues is difficult if not impossible. However, I do feel the AFGA dropped the ball on this one. Apparently, so did many others as evidenced by the e-mail messages I received when the news release was distributed.

Many people know of my association with the AFGA and wanted an explanation about the group’s position on the parks I could not provide, except to say I was equally shocked. When I posted my shock on Facebook, the reaction was instant and likewise negative to the AFGA’s position. To be fair, some people did support the group’s position but they were clearly the minority. Several of those shocked by the AFGA were AFGA members, some threatening to withdraw their memberships.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers
bha-logoA disagreement over one issue should not make or break a membership, but AFGA’s stand does cause one to wonder where his or her views on certain issues might be better represented. During my research for my previous column on the Castle parks, I investigated the various conservation organizations in Montana, seeking to understand the strong and cooperative conservation ethic there. One that popped up as most interesting to me was the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

BHA represents people who appreciate hunting and fishing on foot in truly wild places, and want to see these areas protected not only for the quality recreation opportunities they provide but also because they provide core fish and wildlife habitat that sustains many fish and game populations elsewhere. They are not against OHVs—many members use them to get to trail heads leading into non-motorized backcountry—but feel they should be left to areas that can sustain their wear-and-tear.

The organization got its start in 2004 in Oregon when a group of like minded individuals, upset with how the United State’s wild places were being managed, got together to do something about it. They decided to form an organization that would represent their views to governments and work with other organizations to conserve wild lands.

Over the last 13 years, their membership has grown to thousands. They have chapters in 24 states and one Canadian province—British Columbia.

I didn’t think much more about this group until a person who contacted me about the AFGA news release suggested I join BHA because it was trying to form a chapter in Alberta and he felt such an organization was needed here. It turned out BHA members in Alberta were organizing meetings in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge to see if enough people were interested in forming a chapter. I attended the meeting in Edmonton and was pleased with the turnout, including many young men and women. The discussion was good and did include the Castle parks, the catalyst that caused many to attend.

Although the BHA is based in Montana, once a chapter is formed all dues and donations collected remain with that chapter to do local projects. If you want to continue to have hunting and fishing opportunities in truly wild lands, check this group out.

Note: The Alberta BHA Chapter is now up and running. For more information go to the chapter’s Facebook page or its page on the BHA website.

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

Posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, Conservation, Environment, Fishing, Hunting, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Necessary Castle Parks

[Note: The following was first published in the March 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

Anyone who has been to the southwest corner of our province is aware of the beauty of what is often called the “Crown of the Continent,” the portion of the Rocky Mountains that straddles the Montana/Alberta/BC borders. Two of the jewels of that crown abut one another at the US/Canada border: Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana. The two parks form the International Peace Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that preserves some of the most spectacular mountain landscapes in North America. These parks also protect a host of wildlife species, providing core populations that supplement their respective populations outside the parks.

Unfortunately, the comparison between the parks ends there. If you look at a map of Glacier Park and the surrounding territory in Montana, you see a range of protected areas from national forests to national wilderness areas that form a buffer between the national park and high use developed areas. A major difference between these protected areas and the national park is that hunting is allowed in the national forests and wilderness areas. While off-road motorized travel is not allowed in the national park or the wilderness areas, it is allowed in the national forests but only on designated trails. The national forests are also open to some logging and other resource extraction. The result is a variety of outdoor recreational experiences, from wilderness isolation through hunting and fishing on foot or horseback to limited use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs), with minimal conflict between them. The bonus is that streams and habitats are protected, producing quality fish and wildlife populations.

Castle River Float

The Castle River is one of the few blue-ribbon trout streams in Alberta.

In Alberta on the other hand, much of the crown lands outside of Waterton Lakes National Park have been open to considerable resource development and pretty much unrestricted OHV use. The result has been degraded landscapes affecting many species of wildlife, silt entering streams where it impacts fish habitat, and hanging culverts on development roads preventing movement of fish.

Why such a difference? It boils down to the different ways lands were divided between the states and provinces. The lands I described in Montana are federal lands that have been managed with a strong conservation ethic that was laid down in the U.S. by Theodore Roosevelt and others in the early 20th century. Today hunters, anglers, outfitters, hikers, and environmentalists all ban together to oppose anyone who might wish to reduce the restrictions or indeed sell off this heritage. They realize the future of their culture and lifestyles are tied up in these lands.

In Alberta, our history is different. Much of the federal crown land, outside the national parks, was transferred to the province in the Natural Resources Transfer Act of 1930. That allowed Alberta to take control of the forested land and its resources for the benefit of Albertans. However, governments were often more interested in short-term gain than long-term conservation goals. The one exception was the creation of Willmore Wilderness Park north of Jasper National Park in 1959, although it was significantly reduced in size over the years to accommodate resource exploitation.

The Peter Lougheed government did develop A Policy for the Management of the Eastern Slopes in 1977 to protect the headwaters areas of our major rivers. However, subsequent governments watered down that policy and what regulations remain are often not enforced.

Castle River Trout

Great trout fishing depends on undisturbed habitat.

In the 20th century the concept of “multiple use” was what drove much wildlands policy in government forests outside the national parks and wilderness areas on both sides of the border. This worked OK when the demand for resources would allow the various uses of our forests to coexist. But in the latter decades demand has increased, and the development of OHVs has allowed more people to go deeper into the wilderness, many with apparent little regard for the destruction their vehicles cause. As people watched the degradation continue they called for more protection.

These were the issues our new government faced during the public consultation on the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan. It was obvious that steps needed to be taken to protect not only our headwaters but also the ecosystems that support the diversity of fish and wildlife and our potable water supply. That’s why the government announced last January the creation of the Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park north of Waterton Lakes National Park. They issued a draft management plan and have requested public input to that plan until March 20 (on March 1, 2017, the Alberta Government announced the extension of the deadline to April 19). Here are some brief highlights of that plan.

Off-highway vehicles erode trails, stream banks and disturb fish and wildlife.

Castle Provincial Park
This park encompasses 25,501 hectares west of Pincher Creek where the major branches of the Castle River come together. This is where “front country” facilities will be maintained, such as campgrounds, day use areas, and nature and park interpretation.

Castle Wildland Provincial Park
The Wildland Park encompasses 79,678 hectares stretching from the northern boundary of Waterton Lakes National Park up the backbone of the Rocky Mountains west of Castle Provincial Park, including the headwater streams of the Castle River. It will provide opportunities for high quality “low-impact backcountry and wilderness experiences.” Hiking trails and backcountry huts will be developed to allow foot or horse access without compromising the natural integrity of the park.

Both parks will accommodate anglers. Conservation of native species will be the top priority with emphasis on catch-and-release. Use of bait will be discouraged to reduce hooking mortality.

Hunting will be allowed in both parks. Although hunting is usually not allowed in (non-wildland) provincial parks, it will be in Castle Provincial Park to control species numbers and reduce human conflicts. As in most wildland parks in Alberta, hunting will be allowed in Castle Wildland Provincial Park because the activity aligns with the purpose of wildlands parks, allowing low-impact nature-based recreation.

For similar reasons, trapping will be allowed to continue in both parks, including use of OHVs to conduct business. However, some adjustments might have to be made to reduce conflicts with other users.

OHV silt

Silt from OHV use enters streams and coats spawning beds and other fish habitat.

Off-Highway Vehicles
Perhaps the most contentious issue is that of OHV use. There are several designated OHV trails in the area of these two parks, but unfortunately users often left those trails and cut their own unauthorized trails that caused a lot of damage to habitats, streams and landscapes. Several scientific studies have shown that OHVs negatively affect wildlife behavior and thus are not compatible with the conservation goals of both parks (see the piece “Myths about Off Highway Vehicle Use” fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch posted on my blog).

The management plan calls for the phasing out of all recreational OHV use in both parks over the next three to five years. Effective immediately, OHV use will be restricted to designated trails only and not allowed south of Highway 774 (Castle Mountain Resort Road). Programs will begin to reclaim the unauthorized trails and repair the damage.

The OHV user community is understandably upset about this closure but it was something that should have been done decades ago before OHV use became widespread. OHVs have their place in outdoor recreation but only on trails and in areas that can sustain that kind of traffic, not in crucial headwaters and habitats.

The Castle Provincial Park and Castle Wildland Provincial Park are two new jewels in the Crown of the Continent. They will help ensure Alberta keeps its wild heritage.

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Shifting Away from Consumptive Use

[Note: The following was first published in the February 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

If you’ve been following the dustup over whether anglers should be allowed to take a fish for supper from many of our lakes , you know there is a communications problem between our provincial fisheries biologists and stakeholders with regard to the state of certain lake populations and what is planned for those lakes. Reports of studies are not being released (or are difficult to find), and many anglers do not believe explanations as to why catch-and-release regulations are not being lifted for fish populations that appear to be viable.

Slave Lake perch

Is  keeping a fish for supper becoming an obsolete notion?

Ray Makowecki (a fisheries biologist and Alberta Fish and Game Association’s Zone 5 Fish Chair) has not been idle on this issue. Following the meeting of concerned anglers he organized last September at Lac Bellevue, Ray gathered together a small group of former government biologists (including me) to discuss the issues. He subsequently arranged two meetings between this group and Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) headquarters fisheries biologists in November, and in December with AEP Assistant Deputy Ministers of Policy and Planning, and of Operations—the two areas involved in fisheries management decisions.

At those meetings, there was much discussion about fisheries management policies and processes, and the lack of communication with stakeholders. All agreed there was room for improvement, especially in the communications area, but there was no indication whether changes would be coming any time soon with regard to more consumptive harvests on lakes.

For me, the two meetings illustrated the dichotomy of viewpoints between the former and current government biologists and managers. The current biologists are not as concerned about harvest opportunities as are the biologists of my generation. The latter believe that fish harvest is an important component of the management of a game fish population, and that anglers who harvest fish for the table have a stake in the health of that population and should be consulted about its management. The current biologists and managers appear to downplay the roles of both consumptive use and the opinions of anglers in the management of fisheries.

The Shift
This was brought home to me at the end of the December meeting when Ronda Goulden, ADM of Policy and Planning, stated we should be aware that there is a “paradigm shift” in fisheries management in Alberta away from consumptive use; that biodiversity and endangered species take precedence in all decisions affecting fish and wildlife populations. In a later e-mail message, she clarified that this shift has been ongoing and that AEP “strives to ensure the conservation of healthy, sustainable fish populations and fish that are available beyond those required to sustain populations are allocated to domestic fisheries followed by recreational fisheries and finally commercial fisheries. Further, fish allocated to recreational fisheries are not primarily for consumptive harvest like it was decades ago.” She added that anglers these days prefer “a greater variety of fishing opportunities such as high quality catch and release fisheries.”

And there lies the rub. I don’t doubt many anglers enjoy catch-and-release (C&R) fishing. But how many and for what lakes? For example, government fisheries biologists have told both the Stony Plain Fish and Game Association and the Wabamun Watershed Management Council that a survey of anglers who fish Wabamun Lake found that many want to see Wabamun Lake remain a C&R-only fishery. However, when the members of these organizations were polled at their respective meetings, few expressed an interest in C&R at Wabamun. Most wanted an opportunity to take a lake whitefish, walleye, pike or yellow perch home for supper. So questions arise: When was the survey conducted? How was it conducted? What questions were asked? What were all the results? Meanwhile the lake remains C&R for all species, and many anglers are wondering why when they are catching and releasing what they believe to be harvestable fish.

shore lunch

Catching a fish and eating it is part of the outdoor experience.

Yes, the shift away from consumptive use as a priority has been going on for a while. The fish allocation hierarchy that ADM Goulden mentioned (1. conservation, 2. first nations [domestic] fishing, 3. recreation fishing, and 4. commercial fishing) was set down in court rulings and government policy many years ago. Fish and Wildlife officers and biologists followed the hierarchy and in past years were able to allocate fish to consumptive recreational anglers in most lakes and streams. What changed in the last 20 or so years? Well, fish populations in some water bodies collapsed, we’re told, because of overfishing. So, zero-catch-and-keep rates were imposed. But for some lakes, the limits appear to have worked and numbers are up. Yet, there is a reluctance to lift the C&R regulations.

Management Strategy
If you read the 2014 Alberta Fish Conservation Management Strategy, you see the emphasis on consumptive harvest is being downplayed in favor of C&R. Also the strategy states that AEP operates under the “precautionary management principle” where if uncertainties exist, the least risky alternatives will be used. So, if there is a lack of scientific information about a lake, a biologist might decide to maintain a C&R regulation on the lake despite what anglers are telling him. But what if there are ways of ensuring a limited harvest without threatening the viability of the population (e.g., tags, limited seasons)? We don’t know because stakeholders are not being consulted about the lakes they fish.

Which brings me to another key piece of the Fish Conservation Management Strategy: stakeholder consultation. The strategy goes on and on about how anglers and other stakeholders should be consulted and their views taken into account when making management decisions. Yet, we have seen little current evidence this is happening. Perhaps there are good reasons to maintain C&R on all these lakes, but quoting surveys and studies that are not available for independent review does not build a lot of trust.

The Value of Consumptive Use
So, what’s wrong with consumptive use, anyway? Why are AEP fisheries biologists so afraid of it? Is it because there are too many anglers for the number of water bodies and fisheries available? That’s what some would have you believe. However, there are other jurisdictions with large human populations and fixed fishery resources that allow limited harvest, apparently without harming the resource. It just takes proper science, regulation and enforcement.

As I related in last month’s column, most game fish populations have a harvestable surplus of fish that are going to die anyway, whether from other predators, disease, starvation, or indeed C&R fishing. A limited harvest compensates that mortality to a certain extent and just might aid the health of that fish population and others in the lake.

As admitted in the Fish Conservation Management Strategy, there is mortality related to C&R. Some fish are foul-hooked or poorly handled and die after release. Others are just plain poached. So, if you are allowing C&R-only fishing, you are consuming the resource to a certain extent. By allowing some harvest, you just might reduce the number of soon-to-be-dead fish returning to the water, and indeed reduce poaching.

As you can see, there needs to be a serious discussion about what kinds of fishing Albertans want to have on their lakes and streams. Making decisions behind closed doors and using information not available to stakeholders is not the way for governments to do business.

Comments are always welcome (below).


Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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Tracks and Spoor

Guest Blog: Since the announcement of the creation of two provincial parks in southwest Alberta last January, where the recreational use of off-highway vehicles will be phased out, there has been quite a heated discussion about off-highway vehicle use in wilderness areas across the province. In a previous guest blog, Myths about Off-Highway Vehicle Use, fisheries biologist Lorne Fitch discussed why these machines need to be regulated. In this blog, he  explains why users of these vehicles might not understand the damage they do. The piece was first published in Nature Alberta (Fall, 2015).

Tracks and Spoor
by Lorne Fitch, P. Biol.
Text and Photos Copyright © 2015

Golden yellow aspen leaves quietly rustle in the Porcupine Hills. The noise of summer motors no longer overwhelms the breath of wind caressing the ancient Douglas Firs. Emerson wrote, “Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods”. The motorized set either has not heard, or not understood the message, drowned out as it is in the screaming of fossil-fueled piston action. Perhaps the gods of off highway vehicle (OHV) users shout to make themselves understood.

Today, on a glorious autumn day, it is the gods of nature, the ones with soft, subtle voices, who are speaking. They remind me I am in a place named by the Blackfoot for the outline of trees on ridge tops, set against an improbably big sky at the edge of endless grassland. The Porcupine Hills must have appeared like an antidote to the grasslands where, at times, it seems there is nothing to lean your eyes on.

OHV eroded bank

A bank torn up by an OHV trail.

I have the labyrinth of trails to myself, unlike the summer, and I find myself paying close attention to the stories engraved on this landscape. This thought pattern becomes a trap and instead of just looking, and enjoying the subtle shifts of emphasis, I start to ponder what I observe. Colin Fletcher, the voice of hikers says, “In beautiful places, thought can be an impediment to pleasure.”

But it’s too late for subtle appreciation as I try to make sense of the pair of women’s panties beside the trail and a few feet later a pair of men’s underwear. Modesty prevents me from providing further description of these underpinnings, especially size, but I will characterize both as “ample”.

I’m not a competent enough tracker to read whether one set of underwear was meant as bait, or a signal; perhaps it was a case of one merely reacting to the other or a spontaneous gesture by both. I’m on a well used OHV trail and, as the OHV people like to point out, this is a family sport. I just didn’t realize conception on trail side was part of it, adding erection to the cycle of traction, compaction, erosion and sedimentation. Maybe OHV is an insider code for the “occasional horizontal, vertical” bop.

Maybe those of us who use our natural quads for backcountry travel are missing something. Do the vibrations, pounding, bouncing, tension, and torsion plus the harmonic engine whine induce a hypnotic state that excites passion and brings out naked, trailside lust? Is it mixed up in display, mud-gripper tires shooting up a rooster tail of dirt and rocks to indicate fitness to breed? Part must be the ability to explore new horizons by carving deep ruts up steep slopes. Prospective mates must discern this activity as an indication of superior foraging ability. Maybe it’s the rhythmic booming, farting exhaust, a primitive tribal drum call for an elaborate mating ceremony.

That’s what I’m thinking observing the spoor of the summer motor heads. But it is difficult to stalk the elusive OHV user to understand their rituals. Maybe these artifacts weren’t part of a mating ritual- the dance with no pants- but instead an alternative headgear to filter dust from a busy trail. All the trails I walk on are layered in dust- it puffs up under my boots. At speed, with a pack of quads or trail bikes, the scenery must be blotted out. I suppose you could experience something similar in an operating gravel pit, with the gravel crusher going full bore and all the fine dust being whipped into your face- as a bonus there are no trees to collide with when control is lost.

OHV trailThe trails I walk are rutted, in some places ground down to bedrock. Spinning wheels have advanced the rate of geological weathering and speeded up erosion much beyond the natural scale. Again ignoring Colin Fletcher’s admonishment to stop thinking I do some cross sectional measurements of trail sections to see how far down motorized traffic has worn them.

My back of the envelope calculations shock me. On nearly flat to moderate slopes, for every four paces, up to a half a ton of soil has eroded away. On steeper slopes approximately a ton of soil has slipped down slope, again every four paces. Occasional mini-Grand Canyons have formed on the very steep hillsides where water has finished the job begun by spinning tires. Down to bedrock and unnavigable by motorized contrivance, new trails now parallel these tank traps, hastening the eventual widening of the canyons.

One of the trails extends from the road in the valley bottom to the ridge top, about 1.5 km. For a trail that rarely exceeds a meter in width something approximating 300 tons of soil has eroded away. If this was farmland the rate of erosion would galvanize action, to stop it. And this is just one of a myriad of trails crisscrossing the Porcupine Hills.

Unknowingly, people driving on these trails have created a perfect storm of erosion in the Porcupine Hills. Every trail, every rut is a conduit, a straight-line feature that captures water from snowmelt and rainfall. These linear trails are an efficient interception and collection system, hastening the pour of water downslope. In their efficiency is the problem. To decrease erosion a watershed needs water to move slowly, at a constrained pace hindered and thwarted by vegetation. That way the speed of moving water, which creates the ability to erode, is reduced and more of it seeps into the soil creating a reservoir of water for drier periods. Like slow food we need slow runoff.

While testosterone charged riders test and vie with gravity on the hill slopes they can never really win. Gravity is a formidable force, and the soil loosened by tires and aided by runoff waters finds its way downhill. Beneath me, in the valley bottom is Beaver Creek. One shouldn’t have to connect many dots to imagine where all the soil eroding from the trails is headed.

But, I suppose someone without enough sense to pick up their underwear from beside the trail probably hasn’t a grasp of the simplest principles of hydrology (like water runs downhill) or of erosion (bare soil like a bare bottom moves). Just because we have technology doesn’t imply we also have wisdom.

Beaver Creek OHV ford

OHV trail crossing Beaver Creek.

What should be a stream that babbles along over gravel with water clear enough to see the bottom, Beaver Creek now muddles through banks of mud; the result of former hill slopes brought low by incessant tire action. The creek, tiny at best struggles with this undue load of sediment. It is equivalent to an incredibility long line of trucks with tandem loads of dirt toiling up to dump it all into the waters of Beaver Creek every year, year after year.

Researchers have found sediment runoff from OHV activity to be 2 to 20 times higher than the natural rate from undisturbed ground, depending on slope, precipitation and intensity of vehicle use. Insidiously, cumulatively this sediment pours off bare slopes and down rutted trails past most of the passersby who are oblivious to the phenomena.

Imagine the reaction if you brought just one truck load of dirt up to Beaver Creek and dumped it into the water. You’d risk prosecution under a number of federal and provincial statutes. If someone from the Beaver Creek watershed group caught you there might be some old-fashioned western justice meted out- the type that involves no court rooms and no lawyers.

I don’t actually think any of the ranchers of the Beaver Creek watershed group would engage in vigilante justice. But it must be frustrating, even infuriating to have worked for nearly a decade on restoration and improved management of their lands to look upstream and see the public land, the Forest Reserve, treated so poorly.

Aldo Leopold, the dean of ecologists observed, in 1924 that:
“Often it is necessary for landowners along a creek to work out a unified plan, else there is danger that the lack of diligence of one owner will result merely in passing the trouble down the creek to his neighbors.”

When the upstream owner is the Alberta government wouldn’t you think a stewardship ethic would be present and there would be attempts to manage land uses to prevent excessive erosion?

OHV erosion gully

An OHV trail that has eroded into a gully near Beaver Creek.

The Porcupine Hills are dangerously close to turning completely into a piston head race track and obstacle course with industrial overtones of petroleum development and clear-cut logging. It’s happened over time with the acquiescence of the land manager, the Alberta Forest Service. It’s classic benign neglect and before this landscape disappears completely in a pall of dust, is swallowed up by vehicle ruts and the streams become paved with mud some reflection and rethinking are necessary.

The Porcupine Hills represent an island of undulating hills, a gentle landscape with frequent viewscapes to the prairie grasslands of the east and the mountains to the west. Although short of water the landscape lends itself to outdoor recreation; the walks are gentle, there are no mountains to fall off and the place is easy to access from several large population centers in close proximity. What the Porcupine Hills lack is a unifying plan for the future that provides basic direction. Without direction, the landscape will end up where it is currently headed­­- a wasteland of chronic abuse.

Like the couple responding to stimuli on trailside, leaving their underwear behind, OHV users have responded to a void in resource management in our Forest Reserves. This has proliferated beyond the capacity of the land to absorb such use. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, roads and trails and OHVs are merely a case of the pig in the parlor.

Leopold elaborated, in 1925:
“We now recognize that the pig is all right- for bacon, which we all eat. But there no doubt was a time, soon after the discovery that many pigs meant much bacon, when our ancestors assumed that because a pig was so useful an institution he should be welcomed at all times and places. And I suppose that the first ‘enthusiast’ who raised the question of limiting his distribution was construed to be uneconomic, visionary and anti-pig.”

Like the metaphor of Leopold’s pigs we can have too many trails and too many OHVs on them.

Caring for the Porcupine Hills should take us back to the basics. First, we need to protect the watershed, a priority higher than any other. We can accomplish this by first restoring, then maintaining a healthy landscape, one that is resilient to erosion, traps moisture and is composed of native plants. That goes a major ways towards securing habitat for fish and wildlife, one of the key measuring sticks of landscape health. Caring means we have to reverse the syndrome of detachment and denial, where people who foul and despoil landscapes do not think their activity affects the natural world or anyone else.

As we secure the physical place we also need to secure a place for it in our minds, maybe in our hearts. At the end of A Sand County Almanac Aldo Leopold wrote: “Recreational development is a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

We need old growth forest of the mind; a watershed of thought; an ecosystem of empathy; and, a landscape of understanding. In that place there needs to be respect and awareness for the natural world as well as a sense of limits.

We can create that place, where there is peace and quiet as an antidote to our otherwise busy, noisy lives. There we might experience the natural world and all of its treasures, benefits and glories as will future generations of enlightened citizens. We will hear the whispers of the gods. And our footprint will be fleeting.

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and an Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

Comments are welcome (below); but you may also contact Lorne directly at lafitch@shaw.ca

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